Beyond the Canvas
Tintoretto's scenic inventions
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
"I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today before Tintoret." - wrote John Ruskin to his parents in 1845.
This is a superb description of the effect Tintoretto has on you. Seeing his work doesn't just redefine your idea of painting, but also how you experience it. To stand in front of a Tintoretto even in the worst lit corner of a church is a hugely visceral and profoundly emotional affair. Your eyes dart across the canvas looking for familiar patterns, of which however there are none. It takes time and attention to make sense of what you are looking at. His intricate compositions are densely populated with layered clusters of tangled human figures, it is almost an assault on the senses. It is at once a disorientating and exhilarating encounter, a bit like coming of age, a of point of no return.
I was lucky enough to be in Venice for a dizzying 48 hours last week, and I am still trying to process the disproportionate amount of art I have seen. Like a real tourist, I frantically snapped away with my phone taking mostly bad photos of dozens of masterpieces. I feel stupid for doing that because 1. I tend not to look at them ever again (maybe because they are so bad) and 2. because I realise that they have nothing to do with what I was feeling at that time.
It's hard to choose just one Tintoretto, but here goes. At first glance, I thought this Last Supper was the depiction of a pub brawl. No, seriously. Jesus, shrouded in a shaft of piercing light, is not giving the apostles communion, he is trying to separate them after they have come to blows. Look at the arbitrary spatial setting and off-kilter perspective - when have we ever seen such a theatrical illustration of this theme? This is a revolution, a complete departure from the rules of the Renaissance that oozes ambiguity and asks more questions than it offers answers.
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Jacopo Robusti aka Tintoretto
The Last Supper, 1568-69
Church of San Polo, Venice